Geo-Inquiry from the Prairie to Peru

By Dr. Alex Oberle and Kailyn Bettle

It may be one of the world’s most incredible short flights, leaving the 11,000-feet-above-sea-Andean highlands at Cuzco and landing in the Amazon Basin less than an hour later. Midway through the flight, the mountains just end. Suddenly, a line of clouds appears … and then an emerald expanse of rain forest extending more than 1,500 miles to the northeast.

Photograph by Alex Oberle

It looks unbounded and limitless, but we know it is not: 20% of the Amazon rain forest has been logged over the past 40 years, and in the time it takes to read a National Geographic magazine article, an area the size of 200 football fields will have been cleared.1

On a curriculum-development workshop to Peru in June, a group of Iowa educators spent part of the workshop—nearly three days—at a lodge in the Tambopata National Reserve, deep in the Amazon rain forest.

At the same time, other Iowa teachers were at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., learning about the Geo-Inquiry Process. After tweeting back and forth, our Peru workshop decided to frame and structure our experience using the Geo-Inquiry Process, as if the Amazon were our backyard and we were setting up a Geo-Inquiry for our own students.

Our goal was to use the Geo-Inquiry Process as a means for connecting projects across Iowa with the wider world, and serve as a model of how local geographic questions are important on various scales, from local to regional and even global.

For example, preserving a stretch of native roadside vegetation in Iowa is quite important regionally. It impacts monarch butterflies, whose migration extends to central Mexico, and upland sandpipers that summer in the Midwest and winter in the Pampas.

Using the Geo-Inquiry Process, students at a school in Iowa can take informed action locally and, empowered by their success, extend that to a more distant issue like rain forest conservation. Similarly, a National Geographic Explorer devoting their career to rain forest conservation might use the same Geo-Inquiry model to inspire students to address a related local issue.

The Geo-Inquiry Process employs all the traditions of geography—fieldwork, photography, spatial data collection, visualization, and storytelling—to take informed action on a compelling, real-world question. It is engaging for students, ideally matches new social studies and science standards, and ends with an action that is authentically designed to move the needle—to have an impact.

Ask. Collect. Visualize. Create. Act. Our Tambopata Geo-Inquiry structure models this five-phase process.

Photograph by Hillery Oberle


The beauty of Tambopata National Reserve lies in the distinct contrast of ecosystems—a line of clouds where jungle meets mountains, and then that horizon of green. But flying further into the valley, sections of loss and destruction to rain forest begin to emerge.

Protected areas like Tambopata National Reserve work to save the Amazon Basin from logging, urbanization, and overuse. But is one preserved section enough to make a difference? Can Tambopata be used as a model to create additional conservation areas?

Our thoughts drifted and then coalesced into a Geo-Inquiry question: How can Tambopota National Reserve be improved? The question is geographic and lends itself to taking action.

Photograph by Alex Oberle


The first step for the Iowa educators was research. For example, Tambopata National Reserve has a high proportion of palm swamps and oxbow lakes, two ecosystems that make Tambopata an ideal location for rain forest conservation. However, Tambopata also faces threats from illegal gold mining. Mining creates environmental changes that dramatically alter riparian and terrestrial ecosystems.

For fieldwork, we had the opportunity to talk to naturalists as well as take hundreds of photographs, particularly of endemic and even endangered species. While we did not do any scientific data collection, if this were an actual Geo-Inquiry we could have tested water quality or tabulated fish species to compare old gold mine sites with unmined areas of the reserve.


Visualization is the map-creation component of the Geo-Inquiry Process. In our case, we could use satellite imagery to demarcate sensitive ecosystems in the reserve, as well as threats such as gold mining and encroachment from the boomtown of Puerto Maldonado.

Additional maps or graphs would highlight the proportion of palm swamps and oxbow lakes in this reserve compared to other parts of the rain forest. Since illegal mining and urbanization are not unique to this reserve, the visualization phase would include a map or graphic showing those risks across the wider rain forest biome.

The sprawling, illegal “La Pampa” gold mine, above, has encroached on Tambopata National Reserve. Photograph by Planet Labs, Inc., courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-4.0


If this were an actual Geo-Inquiry, we could create storyboards by organizing our maps, graphs, interviews, photographs, and background information.


Ultimately, we would encourage students to take informed action. Back in Iowa, we could have various K-12 classes contribute to a presentation or virtual gallery walk. Our group is connected to a university; these presentations may encourage a college environmental club to fundraise in support of rain forest conservation, or volunteer to speak on this topic in their environment-focused classes.


Acknowledgements: Thank you to our outstanding team of Iowa teachers who were in the Peru workshop: Tami McInroy, Forest City HS (Geography, Spanish); Kiersten Bettle, Mason City Roosevelt ES (4th Grade); Rachel Hansen, Muscatine HS (AP Human Geography, Social Studies), Jacob Thiele, Ankeny Southview MS (Social Studies). Many thanks to our Iowa Geo-Inquiry Ambassadors: Misti Linn, Ankeny Southview MS (Social Studies); and Katy Kauffman, Ankeny Southview MS (teacher librarian).


1Wallace, Scott. “Last of the Amazon” National Geographic, January 2007


Guest bloggers Dr. Alex Oberle and Kailyn Bettle represent the Geographic Alliance of Iowa (GAI), a National Geographic-supported organization that works to advance geography education in Iowa. Alex is an associate professor of geography at the University of Northern Iowa and the coordinator for the GAI. Kailyn was an undergraduate research assistant for the GAI, and is now a first-year ELA teacher at Cedar Falls HS and Holmes JHS.

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